By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Advisers to Mike Huckabee spent yesterday starting to build a conservative coalition that could propel a future run for the White House, hoping to capitalize on the popularity he gained during his unlikely presidential bid.
Using as a model Ronald Reagan's time between his failed run in 1976 and his success in 1980, the former Arkansas governor plans to help Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Republican congressional candidates win over conservative Christians in the fall, while looking for a national radio show or other forum that he can use to expand his influence within the party.
And though Huckabee has said that he doubts McCain would offer him the vice presidential slot on the Republican ticket, he has not denied interest in the job. The head of his campaign's faith-and-values coalition, conservative radio talk show host Janet Folger, said she is broadcasting the phone number of McCain's campaign office so callers can demand that Huckabee be placed on the ticket. Folger said McCain "needs" to pick Huckabee to ensure that conservative Christians will turn out in November.
Huckabee spent yesterday thanking his supporters, as well as taking a congratulatory call for his performance from President Bush, who officially endorsed McCain yesterday.
"We want to stay in touch and start now building a platform to continue addressing issues that brought us together in the first place," Huckabee said in an e-mail to supporters yesterday. "We will keep our website up and as we transition, will want to create a way to keep in touch and continue the battle for our families, our freedom, and our future."
Sarah Huckabee, the former governor's daughter and national field director, said she could envision her father taking another run at the White House. "He's a young guy. We learned a lot over the last few years," she said. "A lot depends on what happens in 2008, but if there's an opportunity and he felt it was a good time to do it, I think he would."
Huckabee's concession speech on Tuesday, when he thanked supporters in a ballroom in Irving, Tex., was one of the few traditional rites of one of the most unorthodox presidential campaigns in recent memory.
The charismatic, guitar-playing candidate joked on television about eating a squirrel that he cooked in a popcorn popper during his college years, played air hockey on "The Colbert Report," and, a few days before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, invited reporters to watch him get his hair cut. Days before the Iowa vote, he held a news conference to say that he would not run a negative ad about rival Mitt Romney, while showing the ad to an incredulous press corps. On the night before the caucuses, he flew to Los Angeles for a taping of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
He also brought a new figure to the national political stage: actor Chuck Norris. A Christian activist better known for his tough-guy roles, Norris endorsed Huckabee in the fall and then agreed to appear in a clever ad in which the candidate made jokes about Norris's strength, while Norris extolled Huckabee for being an "authentic conservative."
But Huckabee was not all gimmickry. While his better-known rivals struggled to connect with voters in Iowa, he quietly courted home-schooling activists and other social conservatives.
He won Iowa by turning out an unprecedented number of evangelicals, targeting them with a television commercial that dubbed him a "Christian leader" and defending a Christmas commercial that his detractors said appeared to depict a flying cross behind him.
While those tactics helped in Iowa, they also limited Huckabee elsewhere, as he was unable to break out of the box of being the "evangelical candidate." And though his Iowa win helped, Huckabee was never able to raise the money needed to make a national run.
A Jan. 19 loss in South Carolina, where the former governor expected to do well, was crippling. Fundraising dried up, resulting in the layoff of campaign staffers and a reduced advertising budget.
But Huckabee again surprised many people in the Super Tuesday primary contests on Feb. 5, when he won in five states, effectively knocking out Romney from the race. Huckabee got the one-on-one matchup with McCain he had been seeking all along, but it was too late. Key party figures, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, started urging him to drop out.
Huckabee dismissed such challenges, determined to fight on until McCain clinched the nomination. Over the past two weeks, as more of the party rallied around McCain, Huckabee was not able to raise enough money to compete. By Sunday, he started preparing to leave the race.
Whether Huckabee has reached his political peak remains to be seen. Though he won eight contests in the GOP primary race, he largely failed to expand his appeal beyond Southerners, conservative Christians and backers of his proposal to create a national sales tax.
"He was kind of caught in a Catch-22," said Randy Brinson, a social conservative activist who advised Huckabee on his outreach to evangelicals. "The message that was resonating with the voters who supported him was the faith message. He had a broader agenda, but they weren't as endeared of that. In trying to balance that, there was some difficulty."
Whatever his future in elective politics, Huckabee became a political leader in a conservative evangelical movement that is going through a generational change, shifting its focus from issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion to global warming and poverty.
"Not everybody in the conservative or conservative Christian movement supported him," said Andrea Lafferty, a social conservative activist who was neutral in the GOP race. "But there was a strong respect for him and an appreciation for some of the issues he brought to the forefront."